ATHENS (Reuters) - Emergency staff ran hospitals, schools closed and thousands of austerity-weary Greeks took to the streets on Thursday in a 24-hour general strike that tested the resolve of a national unity government.
Chanting “Get out, take the budget and get out of here!,” Greeks poured into the square in front of parliament to protest a new dose of austerity medicine prescribed by foreign lenders as the price for bailout loans.
European leaders approved an 8 billion euro ($10.8 billion) tranche of aid this week to prevent Greece, now led by technocrat Prime Minister Lucas Papademos, from going bankrupt.
Unions representing about 2.5 million people — around half of the national workforce — called the strike to protest a new round of tax hikes and spending cuts in store for Greeks already reeling from layoffs, lower pensions and salary cuts.
“They are killing us. They are killing workers. They are killing the Greek spirit,” said Evangelos Routsas, a 55-year-old protester. “We are here to tell them we won’t be silent.”
The measures are part of Greece’s 2012 budget due to be approved by parliament next week.
“Enough is enough. We have taken to the streets to say that this budget is an austerity budget — a starvation budget — which must not be passed,” Christos Kiosis, a union chief at Athens water utility EYDAP, told NET TV.
A series of strikes this year have added to the debt-choked country’s troubles. A 48-hour stoppage in October degenerated into violence with clashes between rival groups and police but Thursday’s rallies ended peacefully without incident.
The sour public mood over austerity has been tempered by knowledge that elections are around the corner in February, after former Prime Minister George Papandreou was forced to relinquish power last month.
Shops and businesses in central Athens were open, but public services faced disruption. Piraeus port, the country’s largest, was affected while trains, buses and trams halted services in the morning ahead of further stoppages in the evening.
The ancient Acropolis site was shut to tourists. Garbage collectors, doctors, journalists and bank employees also walked off the job. Many schools were shut.
Police said about 14,000 demonstrators had gathered in central Athens but unions put the number at more than 20,000. It was one of the most peaceful protests since the debt crisis gripped Greece about two years ago and the marchers dispersed peacefully by early afternoon.
“Nothing has changed. It’s the same policy. They have led us to the point of no return,” said Panagiotis Proutzos, head of a Greek union for workers in the tourism sector. “Greece is at a dead end and this is catastrophic for workers.”
Many protesters expressed the deep disgust Greeks feel towards their political class, with few expressing any hope of better times under a technocrat like Papademos.
“What do they expect when they appoint a non-democratically elected prime minister, who also happens to be a banker? Of course we are angry. They should all leave,” said 46-year-old Manolis Katsandonis, a mechanical engineer.
The head of Greece’s Communist party, Aleka Papariga, urged Greeks to fight austerity measures to prevent a “great tragedy.”
Communist-affiliated union PAME vowed it would hold two more rallies in December.
In a letter to foreign lenders released late on Wednesday, Papademos said Greeks backed the reforms needed to secure its membership of the euro zone and the government was determined to implement the necessary measures.
His coalition has the express mandate to ram through parliamentary approval of an unpopular 130-billion-euro bailout deal before an election slated for February 19.
A former European Central Bank vice president, Papademos was sworn in last month after his Socialist predecessor was ousted over his call for a referendum on the bailout deal hammered out in October.
Since then Greece has tottered on the verge of bankruptcy. Squabbles among political leaders held up the release of bailout money while European partners watched in exasperation.
With the aid tranche virtually secured — it is expected to be released after International Monetary Fund approval next week — Papademos’s focus now shifts to pushing the budget through parliament.
The package aims to reduce the budget deficit to 6.7 percent of GDP next year from 9 percent this year, a task made harder by a deep recession now in its fourth year in Greece.
The central bank has warned of more pain ahead and has bluntly said the alternative to austerity is life outside the euro zone, which would push the country back several decades.
Writing by Deepa Babington; Editing by Robert Woodward